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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: American Folklore Theatre selects new name

The popular Door County theater is keeping the lid on until May 25.

PHOTO: The days are numbered for this sign in Peninsula State Park in Door County because American Folklore Theatre will change its name starting with the 2015 season.

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – With true theatrical drama, American Folklore Theatre will wait until May 25 to announce its new name.

The change is a big deal. Tens of thousands of people take in American Folklore Theatre shows every summer and fall in Door County. Most of the performances are held outdoors in the amphitheater of Peninsula State Park near Fish Creek. The setting and the lineup of productions have been lures for decades.

This information from the theater’s newsletter and a news release bespeak the wrestling the organization has been going through:

NEWSLETTER

(Gleanings from thoughts of company co-founder Fred “Doc” Heide).

“The main reason (the name is being changed) is that we’re hoping to broaden our audience. Over the years, we’ve gotten a lot of feedback that the word ‘folklore’ gives many people an inaccurate sense of what we do. And lots of them choose to not join us for a show. Now, some of you believe what we do is accurately described as folklore.  After all, don’t our shows celebrate the folk culture of the Upper Midwest? You’re absolutely right. They do. The problem is that not everybody defines ‘folklore’ in as sophisticated way as you do. Many people think folklore describes traditional tales rather than the original ones we create. So we’re hoping that, even if you do think what we do is folklore, you’ll still love what we do even under a different name.”

The theater received more than 300 name suggestions.

“Though this wasn’t really a naming contest, we were delighted and honored that so many of you helped us out.  Almost all of your comments were supportive, and some of the names you offered were similar (or identical) to ones we were already seriously considering…

“(The) process is stirring up some emotion. Many of you told us our current name is perfectly fine with you. It invokes warm memories of family happiness under the stars.  And you’re deeply concerned that the name change means that what you love about AFT will change, too. We understand. None of us like hearing that somebody is going to change something we love dearly. And we’re emotionally attached to our name, just as you are. So let me say this. All of us at AFT are completely dedicated to preserving our mission. As long as we’re alive and kicking, we want to create and produce heart-warming regionally-based musicals suitable for the whole family. The only thing we’re changing is our name, so that even more people can enjoy what we do.

“So here's what’s been happening. A task force of senior company members, writers, performers and board members carefully examined the names you submitted, plus a few of our own. We made a recommendation to our board about what name we should choose, and the board supported it unanimously. The new name will be announced at our Raise the Curtain event on Sunday, May 25. By 2015, we will operate under the new name. The name we have settled on is one that surfaced over two years ago, and, since that time, we have pondered it, tested it, compared it with many others, and ultimately grown to love it, just as we're sure you will.”

NEWS RELEASE

(Excerpted/edited).

In January 2014, American Folklore Theatre announced that, beginning in 2015, the troupe would debut a new name. While it had several strong contenders, the company looked to the community for feedback and name suggestions through Feb. 14.

Holly Feldman, director of development and public relations: “The response was amazing. We received more than 300 name suggestions from our devoted fans. In addition, we were overwhelmed by the strong expressions of support as we take this next step. The strongest themes running through all this feedback were those of family memories shared and the uniqueness of our theater under the stars.”

The change has been a part of the theater’s long-range plan for more than seven years, involving analysis and consideration by the board of directors, management, cast, crew and outside advisors. “While people who know and love AFT are comfortable with the name ‘American Folklore Theatre,’ the company has found that it has drawbacks. The name has also made it difficult to attract new writers and composers, the lifeblood of the theater’s original works. 

Jeffrey Herbst, artistic director: “We understand the nostalgia for our name and have taken the responses to heart. AFT has employed the assistance of a task force to aid us through this transition. The Name Change Task Force is made up of senior company members as well as a representative from AFT’s writers, performers, board members and volunteers.”

Mary Seeberg, board chair: “We have developed some criteria that we have used to evaluate literally hundreds of names. It’s also the rationale we used for scrutinizing the name options we were strongly considering before we asked for public input.

Dave Maier, managing director: “In general, the new name will symbolize our theater. It will evoke the experience while not being overly specific or clever. It will reflect and respect the feedback we’ve received during this process. A meaningful name with broad appeal will help to expand our audience.”

The annual Raise the Curtain fundraising event of May 25 will be held at the Alpine Resort in Egg Harbor. Invitations are on their way.

AFT started as The Heritage Ensemble almost 45 years ago, founded by the University of Wisconsin. The group reorganized and changed its name to American Folklore Theatre when it separated from the university and incorporated as a non-profit performing arts company in 1990.

The press release says, “Over the past 25 years, AFT has evolved from a story-telling and concert-centric ensemble to a full-fledged theater organization that primarily focuses on the creation and presentation of original full-book musicals. Some of its shows, such as the hit comedy ‘Guys on Ice,’ have been performed in dozens of theaters coast to coast.”

Season information is at www.folkloretheatre.com. Performances start June 11. The summer lineup is made up of the new “Strings Attached” and the returning “Guys on Ice” and “Packer Fans from Outer Space.” The fall production is “The Bachelors.”   

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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